So here it is. The film that has received the most hype of any film since at least The Avengers. The return to one of the most popular series in cinema history Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This film had almost impossible expectations to meet. Not only was it expected to be a worthy successor to the original trilogy, but if it was in any way as bad as the prequels were, JJ Abrams would probably have to go into hiding for the rest of his life to avoid the fanboy wrath. So expectations were high and the film was never going to be able to live up to them. So, ignoring as much of the hype as I could, I went to see The Force Awakens and was thoroughly satisfied. Now since very little was given away in the marketing, anything I say here has the chance to be interpreted as a spoiler, to avoid as many as I can, I won’t give my traditional plot recap, but consider this your final warning. If you don’t want the film in any way spoiled for you, stop reading, go see The Force Awakens then come back to finish the review. With that out of the way, let’s get into the review.
Right from the opening crawl, this film film does something that the prequels lacked: it felt like Star Wars. No focus on taxes or senatorial debates, this goes right back to the pulp, Flash Gordon inspired roots of Star Wars and it is all the better for it. The film is essentially a re-do of A New Hope but this type of story works for establishing a new world for Star Wars and creating an environment to bring new fans into the fold. It can go a bit overboard at times with the call backs to A New Hope but on the whole this doesn’t really affect the overall quality of the film. The serialised nature of the original trilogy also comes into play here, mainly with the lack of explanation for the First Order, but it feels like we’re going to find out more about them in Rian Johnson’s Episode 8. The tone though is the main reason why this film works where the prequels failed. It is able to provide a great balance between the darker moments of the story and the more humourous ones (with the film containing a lot of laugh out loud moments) with the dialogue doing a great job of communicating this feeling incredibly well. The shifts in the tone never feel out of place (unlike at some points in the prequels) and it helps to keep the film incredibly engaging throughout.
The characters and the performances though are where The Force Awakens really shines. As Rey, Daisy Ridley does an amazing job. She shows how strong the character is, at numerous points other characters go to help her only to find that she’s already solved the situation, her intelligence is presented brilliantly, mainly how in tune she is with technology and the whole nature of the character, it being that she doesn’t want to leave her home planet Jakku for personal reasons, makes her character arc compelling throughout (although to say more would be to spoil the film). John Boyega meanwhile continues to expand on the promise he showed in Attack the Block. The humour of Finn comes across brilliantly through Boyega’s performance (most of the laughs coming from Boyega) but it’s the morality that makes him so compelling, mainly in his decision to defect from the First Order because of the feelings of guilt he feels from what he’s been forced to do as a Stormtrooper. There’s also this out-of-his-depth feeling that feeds into the character, one that Boyega presents brilliantly through the fear on his face throughout the film. Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron meanwhile, whilst not the most fleshed out, is one of the most entertaining parts of the film. He is incredibly charismatic, trusting and just fun to watch. There isn’t really any grey areas to Poe, he’s just a good person and Isaac is incredibly entertaining, letting you know why Poe has the reputation he does. Harrison Ford meanwhile actually gets a lot to do as Han Solo. He gets one of the more interesting character arcs in the film in relation to him going back to smuggling and it makes Solo a much more compelling character. Domhnall Gleeson is heavily channelling Peter Cushing as General Hux and is great to watch, Carrie Fisher does a great job as Leia, Lupita N’yongo makes Maz Kanata a very compelling character, Gwendoline Christie is suitably imposing as Captain Phasma (even with the limited screen time), Max Von Sydow is wasted in his appearance though, as are the central cast of The Raid and The Raid 2, Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, although it is great to see them. Then we get to the best performance and the best character in the film: Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. To talk in great detail about the character would spoil a lot of the film but the best way to describe the character is Anakin Skywalker in the prequels done right. Driver plays Ren as someone torn between wanting to be on the dark side but feeling the urge to do good and this turmoil is tearing him up, best seen in the moments without the mask. He’s prone to violent outbursts of anger when things don’t go his way and, in the mask and with the modified voice, Kylo Ren is a really intimidating character and is shaping up to be one of the best villains in the Star Wars series.
On a technical level, the film is an absolute marvel. Say what you will about JJ Abrams, but he is an excellent visual director and, along with his go-to DP Dan Mindel, creates incredible engaging, authentic worlds in all of his films and he is at his peak with The Force Awakens. The production design for all the worlds are excellent, all of them having this lived in quality that’s hard to explain but you know it when you see it. This also does a great job at world-building in relation to how the Star Wars universe has changed since Return of the Jedi, mainly on Jakku where we see Rey living inside an abandoned AT-AT and collecting scrap from a Star Destroyer to get food, it’s just an incredibly engaging world. The action scenes are brilliantly shot, all of them informing the characters and being incredibly fun and engaging, none of it detracting from the plot. This film, along with Mad Max: Fury Road, also does a good job showing the benefits of combining CG and practical effects to create a more complete experience, combining both the physical nature of the original trilogy with the better aspects of the prequels on the effects side, mainly in doing things the original trilogy could not do whilst avoiding the artificial weightlessness of the prequel effects, especially seen with Starkiller Base at the end of the film. The use of physical creatures in the background adds to the overall world of the film and provide a lot of great throwbacks to the original trilogy. But nowhere are the benefits of the CG/practical combination seen more clearly than with BB8. The robotics work for BB8 is incredible, throughout I was wondering how BB8 even worked through the movement of the body and the head. The sound design for the character is excellent, creating a great personality (the sound design on the whole is excellent by the way), and the way the movements are handled create some brilliant comedic moments. The CG augments the physical robot for BB8, further making the character one of the cutest, most entertaining parts of the film and doing stuff that would have destroyed the physical robot. This is one of the technical highlights of the year for films.
Overall, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fitting revival for the series. It doesn’t quite live up to the hype but considering how intense it was, no film could. The plot, whilst a rehash of A New Hope, is still an engaging plot, going back to the pulp sci-fi roots of the series but it’s with the characters that The Force Awakens really shines. Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren are some of the best characters in the Star Wars universe and I can’t wait to see more of their story in Episode 8. I couldn’t say this with the prequels but I can say it now: Star Wars is back.
My Rating: 5/5